03/25/12 6:10 PM ET
Valdespin making himself hard to ignore
Prospect has impressed Mets with his bat, athleticism
By Anthony DiComo / MLB.com
"I'm working hard and I can do it, too, be an All-Star player too," Valdespin said. "Just working hard every day and waiting for my time."
Those are ambitious words from a No. 9 prospect who arrived in Mets camp with little chance to crack a concrete middle-infield situation. Yet improbably, five weeks later, Valdespin is still here.
To be fair, it is unlikely that Valdespin will ultimately make the team -- general manager Sandy Alderson said Saturday that if injuries to Andres Torres and Scott Hairston linger, the Mets are still committed to heading north with a natural center fielder on their roster. Valdespin is decidedly not that, nor is he as polished an outfield defender as bench candidates Mike Baxter, Adam Loewen or Vinny Rottino. Meanwhile, the Mets' infield mix remains impenetrable, with Ruben Tejada, Daniel Murphy, Ronny Cedeno and Justin Turner all entrenched in their roles for now.
Still, Mets manager Terry Collins has found it difficult to ignore a player who, before Sunday's 0-for-3 performance, was one of three in camp hitting at least .300 and one of two with a slugging percentage of at least .500.
Valdespin so intrigued his manager last week that Collins began working him out in center field, knowing there was no space on the roster for him as an infielder. After trying the position during Dominican Winter League workouts last offseason, Valdespin made his third appearance in center -- his first start there -- on Sunday, drawing mostly positive reviews from his manager. Collins believes that Valdespin has enough sheer athleticism to stick there in a pinch. It does not seem outlandish.
And yet what excites the Mets about Valdespin is not his athleticism but his bat. After a disappointing introduction to the upper levels of the Minor Leagues in 2010, Valdespin hit a combined .294 with a .468 slugging percentage at Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Buffalo last summer, setting career highs with 17 home runs and 37 stolen bases.
"I think he's gaining a plan at the plate," said Tim Teufel, Valdespin's manager for half a season at Buffalo. "The more he gains a plan and stays with it, the more consistent he's going to be. But he has skills. He has quick hands, and he can sure hit a fastball."
In effect, Valdespin has showcased similar skills to what Reyes did at his age, though the latter was younger when he first reached the upper levels of the Minors. That is not to say that Valdespin is a prospect on par with Reyes, with some scouts profiling him as an offensive-minded utility player. But more than even Tejada, the Mets' shortstop of the present (and possibly future), Valdespin resembles Reyes in his skill set and nature. He walks around big league camp like he is meant to be there, which is not necessarily common for a player his age.
"I think this camp has helped him," Teufel said. "I think he's grown up a little bit over here. Hopefully he continues that and understands that this game is important, and that there's a way to play the game and you've got to be counted on. I think he's learning that."
Teufel's words hinted at a reputation that preceded Valdespin here -- namely, that he has irked some teammates and coaches in the past with shows of immaturity. On the field, it has materialized in his lack of plate discipline and poor stolen-base rate, the most glaring weaknesses in his overall game. Off the field, it has grated on some Minor League officials.
But the Mets hope Valdespin is past all that now, considering especially how much talent he has flashed in big league camp. If Valdespin does not make the team as an emergency outfielder, he will report back to Buffalo as a potential power-hitting shortstop, amongst the rarest breeds of prospect. Should injuries or inconsistencies befall Tejada, Murphy, Cedeno or Turner, Valdespin would be on the short list of players eligible for a callup.
That is, assuming he does not stick around come Opening Day.
"I'm here now," Valdespin said. "I don't know what will happen, but I just have to just play hard and make them have a decision."